Part II. I can’t beelieve how many bees there are!
When applying for PhDs I definitely had a bias towards ones focusing on the Hymenoptera (saw flies, ants, bees and wasps). Despite not really coming from an ecological heritage I’ve been fascinated with them since the age of eight; many hours were spent watching the self-organisation of ants gathering titbits and many a calm moment was disrupted by the unnerving presence of wasps.
They are the third largest order of animals with over 150,000 species, nearly three times that of vertebrates! Their name, hymenoptera, refers to hooks connecting their wing pairs, it seems a bit of a disingenuous diagnostic feature with their amazing ecology. Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene states social insects are the only group outside humans to engage in warfare, domestication and agriculture. On the darker side is their capacity to sting with modified ovipositors. They have an entire index of pain based on their stings, some can produce up to 2,000 larvae from a single egg laid inside prey others can even tame their prey into zombie-like pet. Nonetheless, they are incredibly important: recycling waste, tilling soils, predating pests and being a valued food source. Perhaps their best known function is their impressive pollination stats, conveniently summarised by a collection of infographics and videos by the BBC.
Anyway I digress, unlike the lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) they often require microscopes and keys to determine a species and unlike the lepidoptera I had no clue about how to go about catching, preserving, pining and identifying them. There is a general negative discourse about entomological taxonomy however, scientific collections are vital as a source of data to verify identifications and compliment genetic work. By knowing a species name you can instantly find out its biology, ecology, distribution and conservation status. Of course people should still operate within the law as well as being efficient ad humane in practice.
The NERC insect taxonomy stood out instantly on the list; despite booking 6 months in advance I was still excited. I arrived on the Sunday and had several hours to kill so ran round the city; it was reassuring that nothing had changed since my last visit four years ago, well apart from my age. The first day of the course was a day of firsts. We were toured around the Natural History Museum backrooms by its head of life collections Darren Mann who seemed to be able to identify any beetle at 10 paces. Siting in a circle giving me a nostalgia of show and tell I held a moa bone followed by giant centipedes from Darwin, tse-tse flies from Livingstone and bees from Wallace.
Perhaps most impressive, to me at least, was to set eyes on cabinets on cabinets on cabinets of pinned insects. The day was topped off by getting acquainted some eccentric pets like the giant hissing cockroaches pictured. The second day was extremely helpful discussing the practical aspects of collecting. With all the contraptions, gadgets and gizmos we became something of a tourist attraction. It followed by a crash course in correctly pining specimens. Thankfully it was much easier than I remember from the taxonomic collections on moths I had to do for my undergrad. A lot less needs to be adjusted in beetles and identifying bees is actually helped by a skew-whiff posture.
Taxonomic treasures. A centipede collected during Darwin’s voyage in a rum bottle! A specimen pinned before the formation of the UK. The world’s largest bee Megachile pluto discovered by Wallace in Indonesia. A Madagascan cockroach which can hiss for attracting the opposite sex, to win fights or warn off predators
Day three through to five were based in the annex; a light modern seminar room. The dividers came down splitting the group of 20 into two; half to study ground beetles the others to study bees. Ivan Wright was our mentor and equal parts friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Like many lay people I had little idea of the diversity of bees both in species richness and richness of ecology.
The vast majority of bees are actually solitary, some may co-operatively breed but there are no sterile workers. Group names often focus on how they build their nests: cadre, animal fibres; mason, in wood; leaf cutter, vegetation while diggers, in soil. A lot of diagnostic features focus on the shape, pattern and colour of hair. For example, relatively bald bees like Nomad ssp. tend to be cuckoo parasites which eschew busying themselves collecting pollen and would much rather lay their eggs in their hosts conveniently created nests. See a sneaky sneaky cuckoo bee in action.
I was a busy bee over three days buzzing between specimens, sorry I’ll hold back on the puns. Here was our primer. Bumblebees were the chunky ones on the top row and besides a lone honey bee the rest were all solitary primarily from Andrena and Nomada
We had each been given a bible of identification keys and a swarm of bees. The next three days offered an unparalleled opportunity to focus on one thing; that was to ferry my eyes between a microscope and key couplets with a bee betwixt finger and thumb. The process was loooooong, sometimes taking hours on one individual. This was often because some ridiculous error was made. For example the specimen being a male with broken antennae rather than a female or hair being faded from a ‘chocolate brown’ to ‘ruby’. However, as the trip ups became less frequent and as the pace increased there was a real sense of achievement. The course literally ended with a sort of addiction, where a couple of us had to be torn from the microscopes come 4.30pm on Friday.
Baldock, D.W., 2008. Bees of Surrey. Surrey Wildlife Trust
Collins, G.A. Key to the genera of British bees
Dawkins, R. 2006. The Selfish Gene 3rd Edn. Oxford University Press, UK.
Michener, C.D. 2000. The Bees of the World. Johns Hopkins University Press, USA.
Tilling, M.S. 2014. Key to the major groups of terrestrial invertebrates. Field Studies Council, UK.